Nefesh West Coast Brings Together Local Orthodox Mental Health Professionals


Nefesh West Coast Brings Together Local Orthodox Mental Health Professionals

Yehudis Litvak

Nefesh West Coast, a local branch of Nefesh—the International Network of Orthodox Mental Health Professionals—conducted its inaugural educational and networking event at the Chabad Outpatient Treatment Center. The event was chaired by Dr. Lizzy Weisinger, PsyD; Dr. Rebecca Wurzberger, PsyD; and Miriam Turk, LCSW, Executive Director of Nefesh International, along with a committee of mental health professionals. Dr. Weisinger welcomed the attendees and expressed her hope that this would be the first of many events to come.

Dr. Weisinger spoke about Nefesh International’s opportunities for networking, continuing education, and rabbinical advice, and her goal of bringing some of these opportunities to the West Coast. Currently, there are 184 Orthodox mental health professionals in the Greater Los Angeles area, and the local branch of Nefesh would like to bring them together to facilitate collaboration and referrals and enable them to gain from each other’s experience.

The guest speaker, Rabbi Dr. Zev Weiner, a psychiatrist at UCLA and in private practice, gave a lecture entitled Torah and Medical Perspectives on the Use of Psychiatric Medication. Rabbi Dr. Weiner began with expressing his appreciation to the “really excellent therapists in our community.” He acknowledged the unique challenges of Orthodox psychotherapists and said, “We are blessed with a tremendous arsenal of people to fulfill the work we were sent here to do. We can learn a lot from each other.” He encouraged collaboration between therapists and psychiatrists.

Rabbi Dr. Weiner presented the Torah perspective on medicine—the license given to the physician to heal and the permission for patients to seek professional help. He then spoke about antidepressants, discussing the various perspectives on what they do and how they work. While some see antidepressants as a panacea and others claim they don’t work at all, “the truth lies somewhere in between, as in many things in life,” said Rabbi Dr. Weiner. “Hashem gave us these tools, gifts that potentially, if used in the right way, can bring relief.”

While antidepressants are overprescribed, sometimes without much thought, Rabbi Dr. Weiner said that he has seen antidepressants work for many people, bringing significant positive changes. “Mental health professionals have a bad habit of lumping everything together into depression,” he said. “There is a big difference between someone lacking fulfillment in life and severe clinical depression.” He distinguished between depression patients who look like “walking dead” vs. an overwhelmed CEO who is functioning completely but could use a change in lifestyle. “The more severe the depression, the more likely it is to respond to medication,” he said.

Rabbi Dr. Weiner spoke about combining medication with therapy, which was shown most effective. He explained that while doctors don’t know exactly how antidepressants work, the medications seem to relax the patient, “reduce the amplitude of many emotions,” and thus enable them to participate in therapy more effectively and make long-lasting changes in their outlooks and lifestyles. Some patients may be able to get off antidepressants completely once they make these changes. Others might need to stay on them for extended periods of time.

Rabbi Dr. Weiner also discussed the side effects and long-term effects of antidepressants, as well as the psychological effect of medicating difficult emotions. “We are subtly conveying to our patients that [their negative emotions] are something bad that we need to blot out,” he said. While it may be necessary to treat debilitating emotions, often negative emotions “can be a very good teacher in life,” said Rabbi Dr. Weiner. “Depression and anxiety could be telling you that there is something wrong with your lifestyle. They can promote important changes.” He also cautioned against medicating people who lack meaning and deep relationships and connections in life. “Medicating that is missing a tremendous opportunity,” he said. These people need to be working on the underlying issues instead of suppressing their emotions.

Rabbi Dr. Wiener recalled a patient who expressed resentment for being medicated previously while he was sitting shiva. Many years later, he felt that he was robbed of the opportunity to fully experience his grief. The real goal of medications, he said, is to be used as an adjunct to treatment, while at the same time getting to the root of the issues.

In conclusion, Rabbi Dr. Wiener said that in Yiddishkeit, sadness and joy are two sides of the same coin. “Yiddishkeit requires the full spectrum of emotions. There is a time for everything, and sadness has its place in the right time.” While severe depression has to be treated clinically, everyday sadness can be a catalyst for personal growth.

Rabbi Dr. Wiener’s talk was followed by an animated question and answer session which engaged many of the attendees. Then, during the structured networking sessions, attendees had a chance to meet each other and share their specialties, populations they work with, and the type of mental health work they do. Attendees exchanged their information with one another with the hopes of being able to facilitate future referrals, as well as collaborate with other professionals locally. The feedback from the event has been tremendously positive, and attendees have shared that they really look forward to future Nefesh events.